In India, the humble jackfruit has few takers—partly due to its overpowering smell, and partly due to lack of culinary knowledge regarding its use. Hilton India, however, sees this as an opportunity to overhaul the meaty fruit’s image. Cue in: The Wakao Fest, a three-month-long festival dedicated to the tropical fruit—a taste of which we get at DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Gurgaon. Text and photographs by Bayar Jain
“An entire festival dedicated to jackfruit? Must be another culinary gimmick,” I think to myself while glancing through the details for Hilton India’s Wakao Fest. My mother, however, is excited; hoping to find inspiration to bring back home. Besides, the two of us rarely give outings a miss; and luckily, DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Gurgaon doubles as the apt date-night venue for us.
Prashant Kulkarni, Director F&B, India-Hilton—and the brains behind the ongoing festival—greets us with a smile as we cosy ourselves in one of the adequately distanced tables at The Food Store. Seeing no diners around further comforts my vaccinated soul. At once, pink drinks float their way onto the table: a deliciously refreshing rose-flavoured, vodka-based cocktail, ideal to segue into the culinary surprises that lay ahead.
The menu, I notice, explains that the Wakao Fest aims to celebrate plant-based dishes. Kulkarni explains, “We want to bring the common jackfruit to people’s homes.” My curious brain wonders how; recounting how the fruit’s meat itself is laborious to deflesh. As if on cue, the servers bring the first dish to the table: faux pao. At once, I notice that my night is going to be anything but ordinary with the jackfruit nicely disguised!
An almost paste-like jackfruit sits sandwiched between sesame-encrusted bread. A bite is all it takes for me to be wowed. While the fruit itself is loaded with spices aplenty, the bread’s crunch marries well with the toasty sesame seeds. Within minutes, we lick the plate clean.
Next, a loaded nachos-inspired dish follows. Dubbed as jaca loaded potatoes, this Mexican variation lives up to its name! Loaded with cheese, sour cream, jalapeños, guacamole, potato wedges, and shredded jackfruit, this colourful dish is a treasure trove of flavours. With each bite, my spoon digs in deeper, scooping up bits of salsa goodness. Despite my soft corner for corn nachos, this jackfruit variation clinches its spot as a top contender!
Phanas Pepper Fry follows next—a Chettinad-style mini dosa where the traditional meat paves the way for tangy jackfruit, instead. Three chutneys, too, accompany–coconut, tomato, and ginger. But the robust flavours of the filling juxtaposed with the soft dosa need no backing.
Three dishes in, and the culinary global tour is unmissable (think, Portuguese-origin pao, Mexico-inspired loaded nachos and Chettinad dosa). Kulkarni justifies, “People ordinarily see the jackfruit only in biryanis, pickles, or even as a sabzi; we want to change that perception and show how it fits in global dishes, too.”
Hilton India, I learn, is leaving no stones unturned for this massive mission. The Wakao Fest kickstarted simultaneously on August 10, 2021, across all its properties in the nation—the first of its kind for the hospitality chain. The menu in each space, while the same nationwide, has gone through the same rigour: months of conceptualising, expansive rounds of exchanging recipes across cities, and even sharing photos and recipe videos to ensure consistency!
By now, my awe for the menu has increased tenfold. Seeing the first dish of the main course—wakao krapow—elevates this feeling further. Fragranced jasmine rice paired with a Thai jackfruit preparation with undertones of chilli sits on my palate. The spice leaves behind a powerful punch, which is cut beautifully by the herbaceous rice. When paired with a made-to-order orange and mint vodka cocktail, the flavours reach levels: sublime.
The Wakao Burger and Parmesan Polenta follow next. While the burger, a quintessential American dish, skillfully disguises the jackfruit in the burger patty, the same tropical fruit sits up and centre in the Spanish dish. While smokey undertones of the harissa-spiced patty for the too-big-to-hold burger pair well with the fresh lettuce and soft bun, the bright yellow polenta leaves behind a lingering sweetness. The cornmeal base of the polenta itself is a little too firm for my liking; the tanginess of the Romesco sauce compensates.
The next dish—kathal biryani—is unmissable. “We almost left that out of the menu,” confesses Kulkarni. “But we retained it to bring something familiar for the diners,” he justifies. And familiar it is! The rice is cooked to perfection, rendering nice, long grains doused in delicious spices. The jackfruit itself melts, the spicy salan packs a punch, and the raita cools. Ordinarily, I feel restaurants tend to go overboard with the spices—particularly garam masala—when crafting biryanis. The chefs here, however, have handled this delicate dance skillfully. Kudos!
Stuffed to the core (or, as Kulkarni puts it, “completely jacked!”), Mum and I struggle to find space for dessert. We decide to share the Bar of Bliss and Jacky Edamame Crumble. The latter, made to look like an apple crumble wherein the apple is replaced by—you guessed it—jackfruit, melts in the mouth. But the shining glory is the Bar of Bliss. At first glance, it seems impossible for the Belgium dark chocolate dessert to house the humble fruit. My mum embarks on a mission, scooping up bite after bite, trying to find the hidden dignitary of the night. Encased in creme and soft chocolate, the tropical wonder reveals itself in the very core of the dessert. My mum’s mind is blown. As for me? I’m speechless.
As I take one last bite of the chocolate, I’m convinced that Hilton India’s Wakao Fest dedicated to the jackfruit might just be a stroke of genius.
When: For three months, starting August 10, 2021
Address: DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Gurgaon – New Delhi NCR, Golf Course Road, Sector 56, Gurugram; also available across all Hilton properties in India
Prices: dishes starting from INR 225, exclusive of taxes